I went to McDonald’s this morning to get on their free wireless since our hotel’s wireless is “en panne” (broken). As we walked to our table an elderly lady asked us “Vous êtes américain?” - “You are Americans?”. I said “oui” and she gave us both a big thumbs-up. This was just one example of how welcome I have always felt in France.
Yesterday, while we were in a bistro down the road from our hotel we made a little mistake at our table during ordering and I said to the waiter in French “Nous sommes américain” – We are Americans – as a way to poke fun at the mistake we just made. The waiter, with a huge grin on his face, replied in French “Oui, j’ai vu” - “I noticed”. Talk about funny.
My point is simply that by using a few words of French and remembering that I’m in a different country and therefore everyday customs may be different has really made my trips to France delightful. Here’s a concrete example of remembering that customs can be different…
Je vous ecoute! I’m listening to you!
A few times I have been in a shop or the bakery and the person serving me looks at me and says “Je vous ecoute!” If you directly translate this into English you get: I am listening to you. Now, the first time I heard this, I was a little bit surprised and mildly insulted. In all honesty, I felt that if I was in the US and someone in a shop addressed me in this way I would walk out. However, I noted it happening to French people – not just me the American – and it happened in different situations to me around Paris. I finally realized that the literal translation was not really accurate. What the person was really communicating was: “I am at your service – you have my attention”. The fact that I was being addressed formally (“vous”) is what started to tip me off. In French, you are normally addressed formally if you are a parent (by your children), someone you have recently met, if you are older than the person that is talking to you or if you are being served by someone. My light bulb moment was realizing that rather than the person being surly they were actually being formal with me.
My “bad” experiences in Paris have been no different than my “bad” experiences in Manhattan but they are experiences nonetheless!